Pitchingpalooza, part VIII: you’ve gotta have heart, miles and miles and miles of heart — oh, and a professional pitch won’t hurt, either

damn-yankees

“A little brains, a little talent — with an emphasis on the latter.”

I was thinking about you the other day, campers, as well as our ongoing series on how to prepare to pitch your book to an agent. While searching fruitlessly for interesting flooring for our mother-in-law apartment (every square foot of previous floor was lost to a tenant’s particularly aggressive cat; believe me, you’ll sleep better tonight if you don’t know the specifics), I stumbled upon one of the worst salespeople it has ever been my hard fate to meet. As a long-time student of human labor both stellar and awful and the people who perform it across a variety of fields, I was, naturally, fascinated.

He wasn’t bad at his job in any of the usual senses: he was not ignorant of the theory or practice of floor covering, nor did he appear to be unconversant with the ways a consumer might conceivably purchase some in an ideal world. His particular gift lay in the direction of implying that he did not care whether I opted to buy Marmoleum from his shop or from another emporium. He managed to convey, not once but perpetually, that while he was an affable guy, he was reaching the end of his rope with all of us darned people bugging him by coming into his store and expecting him to evince some interest in getting our floors covered. If only he were left alone, his every tone and gesture screamed loud and clear, he might just get some work done.

No, you’re not confused. His work did indeed involve selling floor coverings. Or so I surmised, perhaps rashly, from the fact that the shop sold nothing else.

Had he been merely incompetent, I probably would have found him merely annoying or dismissed him as yet another example of the Peter Principle in action. (If you have never read Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull’s classic analysis of how hierarchies operate and have ever remotely considered setting a comedy in a workplace, run, don’t walk, to pick up a copy.) There was a touch of genius in just how creative his ineptness was. Clearly, this man worked at being bad at his work.

He didn’t just try to talk me out of considering, say, Tarkett; he generously invested five full minutes in explaining precisely how difficult it would be to order, how unsure he was that the samples he had were representative of what the company had to offer these days, and how only a color-blind idiot would find what he had in stock neither ugly nor uninteresting. (He had a point there.) Then, for the coup de grace, he told a highly unsavory anecdote about how his former Tarkett representative had been summarily fired so, he claimed, her employers would not have to pay her back commissions.

A lesser man might not have shared the actual disputed dollar amount or the gripping details of the subsequent court case, but our fellow was made of sterner stuff — unlike, apparently, any floor covering he could recommend. By the end of his account, he not only had impressed upon me that he didn’t particularly wish to sell any Tarkett on moral grounds; he made me feel that I was a sorry excuse for a human being for ever having considered buying it.

I’m ashamed to say that I would have, too. If only they still made the pattern I liked.

It did not occur to me to question the veracity of this tale of woe and uproar until he was well into a searing indictment of bamboo hardwoods and the madmen who purvey them. His passion for that topic so absorbed him that he barely put any energy at all into brushing off the poor soul on a fool’s errand seeking some carpeting for his daughter’s bedroom.

Midway through his blistering exposé of vinyl laminate and all of its disreputable relatives, I waved a few samples of Marmoleum in front of his face. “Would you think too badly of me,” I inquired meekly, “if I took these home to see how they might look next to the kitchen cabinets?”

He snorted. “If you don’t mind giving business to foreigners.” Then, evidently suspecting that he might have gone a trifle too far, he added, “I do have one of the best installers in the Pacific Northwest for that, though. I think he’s still on work release…”

I thought about his sales technique long after I had written up my own sales slip, forced a deposit upon him, and made my way past the stacks and rolls of flooring that for reasons best known to the Almighty had not yet been snapped up by an eager consumer. “Wow,” I found myself murmuring, “have I ever heard a lot of book pitches like that.”

As I mentioned last time, it’s genuinely striking how many aspiring writers pitch as though their goal were to talk an agent or editor out of seriously considering their books. “It’s okay if you don’t want to see pages,” they will assure astonished agents. “It’s already been rejected quite a few times.”

You think I’m making that up, don’t you? Oh, how I wish I were. I also would prefer that this little gem were solely the product of my fevered brain: “My book really isn’t like anything else on the market. I know that agents are only interested in finding the next bestseller.”

Or that I had dreamed hearing this: “What’s my book about? Well, it’s sort of…it’s based on something that really happened. To me. I mean, it’s kind of autobiographical. It’s fiction, though, but I really lived it.”

That last one made some of you do a double-take, didn’t it? “But Anne,” those of you who write thinly-veiled autobiography point out, “that’s not a dissuasive statement. That’s just a statement of fact, isn’t it?”

Not to someone who has heard a lot of pitches, no. Many, if not most, first-time novelists troll their own lives for material; it’s practically a truism that a first novel is as much about the author as about its ostensible subject matter. Yes, even if it is set on the Planet Targ; you thought it wouldn’t be obvious that the three-eyed hydra prone to spitting venom on our blameless heroine was based on the lady who works two cubicles down from you?

As my old friend Philip Dick liked to say: never piss off a living writer. We have ways of making you look bad in perpetuity.

So in wasting even a few seconds in informing an agent that your book is at least semi-autobiographical, you’re probably not telling her something she doesn’t already suspect. (Also, it’s about me and autobiographical mean the same thing; trust me, it’s irritating if you mention both.) Contrary to astoundingly popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, the mere fact that something actually happened does not mean that it will be interesting in print.

As the pros like to say, it all depends on the writing. That means — out comes the broken record again — that your goal in the pitch should be not to convey how much you care about your subject matter or how close you are to it, but to make it sound intriguing enough that the agent or editor in front of you will ask to read some pages.

Leading off with “Well, it’s semi-autobiographical,” is seldom the best way to achieve that. Why? Well, think about it from the point of view of someone who pitches books for a living: because pitches are prone to being cut off in the middle, an agent will generally bring up the book’s prime selling point first.

Is the fact that your novel is based on something that really happened to you honestly the most important thing about it? Is it why you believe a browser in a bookstore would pick it up?

Unless you happen to be a celebrity with national name recognition, probably not. So I ask you: if you had only a single breath to tell that potential reader why to grab your book and peruse the first few pages, as opposed to the one next to it on the shelf, what would you say?

Essentially, you’re in the same position in an informal pitch: what does the agent absolutely need to know about your book?

You should be leading with that information, not assuming that the hearer will glean it from a description of the plot. That’s especially true in an elevator speech: since the average hallway pitcher has only about 30 seconds to make her case, she needs to get to the crux right away.

You have a bit more leeway in a formal pitch meeting, but still, is it in your best interest to talk about the Tarkett saleslady? Wouldn’t you be better served by investing the time in making the Marmoleum sound wonderful?

In order to be able to present your book’s good points successfully, you are going to need to figure out what those good points are. To that end, last time, I suggested that a dandy way to prepare for a conversation with a real, live agent or editor was to sit down and come up with a list of selling points for your book. Or, if you’re pitching nonfiction, how to figure out the highlights of your platform.

Not just vague assertions about why an editor at a publishing house would find it an excellent example of its species of book — that much is assumed, right? — but reasons that an actual real-world book customer might want to pluck that book from a shelf and carry it up to the cash register. It may seem like a pain to generate such a list before you pitch or query, but believe me, it is hundreds of times easier to land an agent for a book if you know why readers will want to buy it.

Trust me, “I spent three years writing it!” is not a reason that is going to fly very well with agents and editors.

Remember, pretty much everyone who approaches them has expended scads of time, energy, and heart’s blood on his book. Contrary to what practically every movie involving a sports competition has implicitly told you, a writer’s wanting to get published more than the next person at a writers’ conference is not going to impress the people making decisions about who does and doesn’t get published.

That means, in practice, that to an agent or editor, the intensity of a writer’s desire to get published is simply irrelevant to a pitch. So are the reasons the writer chose to sit down and write a book in the first place. And, at the risk of engendering howls of protest from those of you accustomed to judging literature by the effort required to produce it, so is how difficult it was to write.

Sad to report, a disproportionately high percentage of pitchers (and quite a few queriers as well) make the serious marketing mistake of giving into the impulse to tell the pitchee about how miserable it was to write this particular book, how discouraging the process was, how hard it was to wrest time for writing from friends, family, job, or volunteering at the local pet rescue. Or, still worse, yielding to the temptation to list how many agents have rejected it, at how many conferences they’ve pitched it, how close a competitor of the person sitting in front of them was to picking it up six months ago, etc.

The more disastrously a pitch meeting is going, the more furiously these pitchers will insist, often with hot tears trembling in their eyes, that this book represents their life’s blood, and so — the implication runs — only the coldest-hearted of monsters would refuse them Their Big Chance. (For some extended examples of this particular species of pitching debacle, please see an earlier post on the subject.) But why would this be important to the hearer? After all, isn’t it only reasonable to assume that pretty much every writer willing to invest substantial time and resources in pitching at a writers’ conference wants to succeed that much?

Sometimes, a pitcher will get so carried away with the passion of describing his suffering that they will forget to pitch the book at all. (Yes, really.) And then he’s astonished when his outburst has precisely the opposite effect of what he intended: rather than sweeping the agent or editor off her feet with his intense love for this manuscript and all he has put himself through to bring it to the attention of an admiring world, all they’ve achieved is to convince the pro that these writers have a heck of a lot to learn about why agents and editors pick up books.

Surprised? Don’t be. A writer who melts down the first time he has to talk about his book in a professional context generally sets off flashing neon lights in an agent’s mind: this client will be a heck of a lot of work. Once that thought is triggered, a pitch would have to be awfully good to wipe out that initial impression of time-consuming hyperemotionalism.

Unfortunately, pitchers who play the emotion card often believe that it’s the best way to make a good impression. Rather than basing their pitch on their books’ legitimate selling points, they fall prey to what I like to call the Great Little League Fantasy: the philosophy so beloved of amateur coaches and those who make movies about them that decrees that all that’s necessary to win in an competitive situation is to believe in oneself.

Or one’s team. Or one’s horse in the Grand National, one’s car in the Big Race, or one’s case before the Supreme Court. You’ve gotta have heart, we’re all urged to believe, miles and miles and miles of heart.

Given the pervasiveness of this dubious philosophy, you can hardly blame pitchers for embracing it. They believe, apparently, that pitching (or querying) is all about demonstrating just how much their hearts are in their work. Yet as charming as that may be (or pathetic, depending upon the number of tears shed during the pitch meeting), this approach typically does not work. In fact, what it generally produces is profound embarrassment in both listener and pitcher.

Which is why, counterintuitively, figuring out who will want to read your book and why is partially about heart: preventing yours from getting broken into seventeen million pieces while trying to find a home for your work.

I’m quite serious about this: I’m trying to get you to think about your work in market terms not merely to help you pitch better, but to pull the pin gently on a grenade that can be pretty devastating to the self-esteem. A lot of writers mistake professional questions about marketability for critique, hearing the fairly straightforward question, “So, why would someone want to read this book?” as “Why on earth would ANYONE want to read YOUR book? It hasn’t a prayer!”

Faced with what they perceive to be scathing criticism, some writers shrink away from agents and editors who ask this perfectly reasonable question — a reluctance to hear professional feedback which, in turn, can very easily lead to an unwillingness to pitch or query ever again.

“They’re all so mean,” such writers say, firmly keeping their work out of the public eye. “It’s just not worth it.”

This response saddens me, because the only book that hasn’t a prayer of being published is the one that is never submitted at all.

There are niche markets for practically every taste, after all. Your job in generating selling points is to show (not tell) that there is indeed a market for your book.

Ooh, that hit some nerves, didn’t it? I can hear some of you, particularly novelists, tapping your feet impatiently. “Um, Anne?” some of you seem to be saying, with a nervous glance at your calendars, “I can understand why this might be a useful document for querying by letter, or for sending along with my submission, but have you forgotten that I will be giving pitches at a conference just a week or so away? Is this really the best time to be spending hours coming up with my book’s selling points?”

My readers are so smart; you always ask the right questions at precisely the right time. So here is a short, short answer: yes.

Before you pitch is exactly when you should devote some serious thought to your book’s selling points; after, it will be too late. Because, you see, if your book has market appeal over and above its writing style (and the vast majority of books do), you should — and I hope by now you’ve anticipated what I’m about to say — make darned sure that your pitch either mentions or demonstrates it.

Not in a general, “Well, I think a lot of readers will like it,” sort of way, but by citing specific, fact-based reasons that they will clamor to read it. Preferably backed by the kind of verifiable statistics we discussed last time.

Why? Because it will make you look professional in the eyes of the agent or editor sitting in front of you — and, I must say it, better than the twenty-five pitchers before you who did not talk about their work in professional terms. Not to mention that dear, pitiful person who wept for the entire ten-minute pitch meeting about how frustrating it was to try to find an agent for a cozy mystery these days.

Thank God she didn’t also make the mistake of buying Tarkett. Then she really would have a reason to weep.

The more solid reasons you can give for believing that your book concept is marketable, the stronger your pitch will be. Think about it: no agent is going to ask to see a manuscript purely because its author says it is well-written, any more than our old pal Millicent the agency screener would respond to a query that mentioned the author’s mother thought the book was the best thing she had ever read with a phone call demanding that the author overnight the whole thing to her.

“Good enough for your mom? Then it’s good enough for me!” is not, alas, a common sentiment in the publishing industry. (But don’t tell Mom; she’ll be so disappointed.)

So let’s get back to constructing that list of selling points for your manuscript, shall we? To recap:

(1) Any experience that makes you an expert on the subject matter of your book.

(2) Any educational credentials you might happen to have, whether they are writing-related or not.

(3) Any honors that might have been bestowed upon you in the course of your long, checkered existence.

(4) Any former publications (paid or unpaid) or public speaking experience.

All of these are legitimate selling points for most books, but try not to get too bogged down in listing the standard prestige items. Naturally, you should include any previous publications and/or writing degrees, but if you have few or no previous publications, awards, and writing degrees to your credit, do not despair. We shall be going through a long list of potential categories in order that everyone will be able to recognize at least a couple of possibilities to add to her personal list.

Let’s get cracking, shall we?

(5) Relevant life experience.
This is well worth including, if it helped fill in some important background for the book. Is your novel about coal miners based upon your twenty years of experience in the coalmining industry? Is your protagonist’s kid sister’s horrifying trauma at a teen beauty pageant based loosely upon your years as Miss Junior Succotash? Mention it.

And if you are writing about firefighting, and you happen to be a firefighter, you need to be explicit about it. It may seem self-evident to you, but remember, the agents and editors to whom you will be pitching will probably not be able to guess whether you have a platform from just looking at you.

There’s a reason that they habitually ask NF writers, “So what’s your platform?” after all.

“Wait just a nit-picking minute, Anne,” those of you who have been paying attention cry. “How precisely is Point #5 different from stammering out in a pitch meeting (or saying in a query letter) that my novel is sort of autobiographical? Wouldn’t an agent or editor translate that as, ‘This book is a memoir with the names changed. Since it is based upon true events, I will be totally unwilling to revise it to your specifications.’”

The distinction I am drawing here is a subtle one, admittedly. Having the background experience to write credibly about a particular situation is a legitimate selling point: in interviews, you will be able to speak at length about the real-life situation.

However, industry professionals simply assume that fiction writers draw upon their own backgrounds for material. But to them, a book that recounts true events in its author’s life is a memoir, not a novel. And, as I mentioned above, contrary to the pervasive movie-of-the-week philosophy, the mere fact that a story is true does not make it more appealing; it merely means potential legal problems.

So how should you handle it? Make the case for the book’s being fascinating first, then demonstrate your credibility by mentioning your credentials afterward.

Either way, that life experience belongs on your list, right?

(6) Associations and affiliations.
If you are writing on a topic that is of interest to some national organization, list it. Also, if you are a member of a group willing to promote (or review) your work, mention it. Some examples:

The Harpo Marx Fan Club has 120, 000 members in the U.S. alone, as well as a monthly newsletter, guaranteeing substantial speaking engagement interest.

Buddy Holly is a well-known graduate of Yale University, which virtually guarantees a mention of her book on tulip cultivation in the alumni newsletter. Currently, the Yale News reaches over 28 million readers bimonthly.

Perhaps it goes without mentioning again, but I pulled all of the examples I am using in this list out of thin air. Probably not the best idea to quote me on any of ‘em, therefore.

(7) Trends and recent bestsellers.
If there is a marketing, popular, or research trend that touches on the subject matter of your book, add it to your list. If there has been a recent upsurge in sales of books on your topic, or a television show devoted to it, mention it. (Recent, in industry terms, means within the last five years.)

Even if these trends support a secondary subject in your book, they are still worth including. If you can back your assertion with legitimate numbers (see my earlier posts on the joys of statistics), all the better. Some examples:

Ferret ownership has risen 28% in the last five years, according to the National Rodent-Handlers Association.

Last year’s major bestseller, THAT HORRIBLE GUMBY by Pokey, sold over 97 million copies. It is reasonable to expect that its readers will be anxious to read Gumby’s reply.

(8) Statistics.
At risk of repeating myself, if you are writing about a condition affecting human beings, there are almost certainly statistics available about how many people in the country are affected by it. As we discussed last time, including the real statistics in your pitch minimizes the probability of the agent or editor’s guess being far too low.

Get your information from the most credible sources possible, and cite them. Some examples:

400,000 Americans are diagnosed annually with Inappropriate Giggling Syndrome, creating a large audience potentially eager for this book.

According to a recent study in the Toronto Star, 90% of Canadians have receding hairlines, pointing to an immense potential Canadian market for this book.

(9) Recent press coverage.

I say this lovingly, of course, but people in the publishing industry have a respect for the printed word that borders on the mystical. Minor Greek deities were less revered in 600 B.C. That remains true, even in the midst of the current and ongoing banshee howls over the purportedly imminent demise of same.

Thus, if you can find recent articles related to your topic, you can credibly them as evidence that the public is eager to learn more about it. Possible examples:

So far in 2011 the Chicago Tribune has run 347 articles on mining accidents, pointing to a clear media interest in the safety of mine shafts.

In the last six months, the New York Times has written twelve times about Warren G. Harding; clearly the public is clamoring to hear more about this important president’s love life.

(10) Your book’s relation to current events and future trends.
I hesitate to mention this one, because it’s actually not the current trends that dictate whether a book pitched or queried now will fly off the shelves after it is published: it’s the events that will be happening then.

Current events are inherently tricky as selling points, since it takes a long time for a book to move from proposal to bookstand. Ideally, your pitch to an agent should speak to the trends of at least two years from now, when the book will actually be published.

(In response to that loud unspoken “Whaaa?” I just heard out there: after you land an agent, figure one year for you to revise it to your agent’s specifications and for the agent to market it — a conservative estimate, incidentally — and another year between signing the contract and the book’s actually hitting the shelves. If my memoir had been printed according to its original publication timeline, it would have been the fastest agent-signing to bookshelf progression of which anyone I know had ever heard: 16 months, a positively blistering pace.)

However, if you can make a plausible case for the future importance of your book, go ahead and include it on your list. You can also project a current trend forward. Some examples:

At its current rate of progress through the courts, Christopher Robin’s habeas corpus case will be heard by the Supreme Court in late 2013, guaranteeing substantial press coverage for Pooh’s exposé, OUT OF THE TOY CLOSET.

If tooth decay continues at its current rate, by 2021, no Americans will have any teeth at all. Thus, it follows that a book on denture care should be in ever-increasing demand.

(11) Particular strengths of the book.
You’d be surprised at how well a statement like, BREATHING THROUGH YOUR KNEES is the first novel in publishing history to take on the heartbreak of kneecap dysplasia can work in a pitch or a query letter. If it’s true, that is; if it’s not, and the agent knows it isn’t, few things can get your book rejected faster.

Try to think about how your book could actually improve people’s lives — or speak to their experience. Don’t just assume interest; specify why. (Speaking as someone who has spent the last year having various medical professionals try to wrest her kneecap back into place, I can tell you now that the process’ dramatic appeal isn’t immediately apparent to just anyone.)

So what is your book’s distinguishing characteristic? How is it different and better from other offerings currently available within its book category? How is it different and better than the most recent bestseller on the subject?

One caveat: avoid cutting down other books on the market; try to point out how your book is good and/or useful, not how another book is bad and/or a plague upon humanity.

Why? Well, publishing is a small world: you can never be absolutely sure that the person to whom you are pitching didn’t go to college with the editor of the book on the negative end of the comparison. Or dated the author. Or represented the book himself.

I would strongly urge those of you who write literary fiction to spend a few hours brainstorming on this point. How does your book deal with language differently from anything else currently on the market? How does its dialogue reveal character in a new and startling way? Why might a professor choose to teach it in an English literature class?

Again, remember to stick to the FACTS here, not subjective assessment. It’s perfectly legitimate to say that the writing is very literary, but don’t actually say that the writing is gorgeous.

Even if it undeniably is. That’s the kind of assessment that publishing types tend to trust only if it comes from one of three sources: a well-respected contest (in the form of an award), the reviews of previous publications — and the evidence of their own eyes.

Seriously, this is a notorious pet peeve: almost universally, agents and editors tend to respond badly when a writer actually says that his book is well-written; they want to make up their minds on that point themselves. It tends to provoke a “Show, don’t tell!” response.

In fact, it’s not at all unusual for agents to tell their screeners to assume that anyone who announces in a query letter that this is the best book in the Western literary canon is a bad writer. Next!

Be careful not to sound as if you are boasting. If you can legitimately say, for instance, that your book features the most sensitive characterization of a dyslexic 2-year-old ever seen in a novel, be prepared to back that up with direct comparisons to other books, so it will be heard as a statement of fact, not a value judgment.

Stick to what is genuinely one-of-a-kind about your book — and don’t be afraid to draw direct factual comparisons with other books in the category that have sold well recently. For example:

While Elizabeth Taylor’s current bestseller, EYESHADOW YOUR WAY TO SUCCESS, deals obliquely with the problem of eyelash loss, my book, EYELASH: THE KEY TO A HAPPY, HEALTHY FUTURE, provides much more detailed guidelines on eyelash care.

(12) Any research or interviews you may have done for the book.
If you have done significant research or extensive interviews, list it here. This is especially important if you are writing a nonfiction book, as any background that makes you an expert on your topic is a legitimate part of your platform.

Leonardo DiCaprio has spent the past eighteen years studying the problem of hair mousse failure, rendering him one of the world’s foremost authorities.

Tiger Woods interviewed over 600 married women for his book, HOW TO KEEP THE PERFECT MARRIAGE.

(13) Promotion already in place.
Yes, the kind of resources commonly associated with having a strong platform — name recognition, your own television show, owning a newspaper chain, and the like — will impress agents and editors. You’d be surprised, though how far more modest promotional efforts can go toward suggesting that you are a writer who is savvy about how book marketing actually works.

Having a website already established that lists an author’s bio, a synopsis of the upcoming book, and future speaking engagements, for instance, is helpful in establishing your professional credibility. Frankly, the publishing industry as a whole has been a TRIFLE slow to come alive to the promotional possibilities of the Internet, beyond simply throwing up static websites.

For this reason, almost any web-based marketing plan you may have is going to come across as impressive. Consider having your nephew (or some similarly computer-savvy person who is fond enough of you to work for pizza) put together a site for you, if you don’t already have one.

(14) What makes your take on the subject matter of your book fresh.
This is the time to bring up what makes your work new, exciting, original. If you don’t know what makes your book different and better than what’s already on the shelves, how can you expect an agent or editor to guess?

Actually, I like to see every list of selling points include at least one bullet’s worth of material addressing this point, because it’s awfully important. Again, what we’re looking for here are not merely qualitative assessments (“This is the best book on sailboarding since MOBY DICK!”), but content-filled comparisons (“It’s would be the only book on the market that instructs the reader in the fine art of harpooning from a sailboard.”)

Finished brainstorming your way through all of these points? Terrific. Let’s do something productive with it.

(1) Go through your list and cull the less impressive points. Ideally, you will want to end up with somewhere between 3 and 10, enough to fit comfortably as bullet points on a double-spaced page.

(2) Reduce each point to a single sentence. Yes, this is a pain for those of us who spend our lives meticulously crafting beautiful paragraphs, but trust me, when you are consulting a list in a hurry, shorter is better.

(3) When your list is finished, label it MARKETING POINTS, and keep it by your side until your first book signing. Or when you are practicing answering the question, “So what’s your platform?”

Heck, you might even want to have it handy when you’re giving interviews about your book. Once you’ve come up with a great list of reasons that your book should sell, you’re going to want to bring those reasons up every time you talk about the book, right?

Oh, and keep a copy handy to your writing space. It’s a great pick-me-up for when you start to ask yourself, “Remind me — why I am I putting in all of this work?”

Believe me, in retrospect, you will be glad to have a few of these reasons written down before you meet with — or query — the agent of your dreams. Trust me on this one. And remember me kindly when, down the line, your agent or editor raves about how prepared you were to market your work.

There’s more to being an agent’s dream client than just showing up with a beautifully-written book, you know: there’s arriving with a fully-stocked writer’s toolkit.

Exhausted? I hope not, because for the next couple of weeks, we’re going to be continuing this series at a pretty blistering pace. Next time, I shall move on to constructing those magic few words that will summarize your book in half a breath’s worth of speech. So prepare yourselves to get pithy, everybody.

I’m off to wrestle with flooring decisions. Who knew that they would be so fraught with ethical peril? Keep up the good work!

Pitchingpalooza, part II: resisting the urge to run screaming

Happy Bastille Day, everyone! How are you all feeling after our first foray into pitching, the much-feared practice of approaching an agent face-to-face to try to interest her in your manuscript, rather than via the far less intimidating query letter or e-mail?

That good, eh? If I had to picture the array of your reactions, I imagine they would look something like this:

Within mere seconds of posting yesterday, I felt the ether fill with four discordant emotions rising in a cloud from my readers: extreme panic, terrible annoyance, blank disbelief at having to write yet another marketing piece for your book over and above the query and synopsis, and a clawing, pathological fear that the thoroughness of the ‘Palooza approach would mean I would still be blithely dispensing advice on the subject a month after you were scheduled to pitch — or that somehow, you would manage to stumble into the one species of pitching situation I wouldn’t have covered. (Actually, there was a fifth miasma, gratitude from those of you who aren’t scheduled to pitch anytime soon, but the other smogs were so virulent that it took me a while to notice #5.)

Let me address the last and most complicated set of concerns first, as those who harbor them are likely to be the most impatient. Because writers at conferences do occasionally find themselves pitching in some rather odd and unanticipated contexts — hey, there’s a reason that one hears about elevator pitches — Pitchingpalooza will cover a broad array of hypotheticals for your preparation and worrying pleasure: formal pitches (the kind writers make appointments at conferences to give), impromptu pitches (the kind writers give when they happen to find themselves seated next to an agent at a conference luncheon or, yes, sharing an elevator), answers to the dreaded question, “So, what do you write?”, what to do after a pitch is successful, the works. I’m even going to be talking about how to transform a great verbal pitch into a fabulous query letter, and vice-versa.

So you might want to get comfortable; we’re going to be at it a while. For those of you who are heading out to conferences right away — there’s one in my neck of the woods in a couple of weeks, for instance — and need to pull together a pitch, pronto, I’ve lassoed a set of posts that will walk you through the absolute basics in record time and made them instantly available to the rushed under the evocative title HOW TO WRITE A PITCH AT THE LAST MINUTE. You’ll find the category on the archive list on the lower right-hand corner of this page.

Don’t say I never did anything for procrastinators. For those of you who have a little more time to kill, let’s take the scenic route.

For those of you stunned by the prospect of having to take still more time away from your writing in order to construct yet another document intended to impress agents into wanting to read your book, who could blame you? I’ve literally never met an aspiring writer who didn’t resent, at least a little, having to sell his work to the people he would like to sell his work. The good news about pitch-writing is that, unlike queries and synopses, writing one is completely optional for your first book. You are perfectly at liberty to pursue representation by means other than pitching.

Oh, you caught that emphasis on first book? As I mentioned last time, agented writers often pitch new projects to their agents and editors; like synopsis-writing, it’s a standard professional skill. Unlike learning to write a query — necessary at the beginning of a writing career, but not all that useful after one lands an agent — once you learn the basic technique for writing a pitch, you’re likely to be using it for the rest of your professional life.

But at the agent-finding stage, shy writers may breathe a sigh of relief: it is entirely possible, and indeed the norm, to approach agents in writing, not face to face. For you, this series will be more a tutorial in figuring out what your book’s selling points are and how to express them than a cheerleading session on how to work up nerve to walk up to an agent after she speaks at a conference and say, “Excuse me, Agent X, but I’m a great admirer of your work, and I could not get an appointment with you. Could you possibly spare me 30 seconds to hear my pitch?”

I know that last sentence made half of you break out in a cold sweat, but never fear: by the end of Pitchingpalooza, you might actually want to try that approach. Preparing both an elevator pitch (the 30-second variety) and a formal pitch (the 2-minute version one gives in a meeting) maximizes the probability of being ready no matter what pitching opportunity presents itself.

On to the most common reactions to constructing a pitch, panic and annoyance. Both are completely understandable, of course: the prospect of sitting down with an agent who may very well reject you on the spot, much less stopping her in a conference hallway, can be monumentally frightening. Rejection’s bad enough when it comes in the mail or in your inbox, right? And believe me, I can certainly identify with the annoyance of learning that connecting successfully with an agent or editor in a pitch appointment often requires substantial advance homework; conference brochures and websites tend to imply that all a writer has to do in order to impress the agent of her dreams is to show up ready to talk about her book. Preferably in three sentences or less.

Honestly, I’ve been blogging and teaching about pitching long enough to expect these reactions — and to know that there is only one thing I can say that will help the panicked and annoyed see why I’m so committed to making absolutely certain that all of my readers learn the basic skills of pitching, rather than just the ones who have appointments with agents at conferences in the weeks to come. It’s this:

A good 90% of pitch rejections have nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of the book being pitched

Yes, really: the vast majority of the time, pitch recipients say, “I’m sorry,” because of other factors, such as bad fit, a book category that the agent does not represent, an insufficient platform (that’s for nonfiction; don’t worry, we’re getting to that), an incoherent pitch (a common side effect of panic), lack of freshness in the story, the agent’s having had no success selling a manuscript, the writer’s looking just like someone who was really, really mean to the agent in high school (hey, they’re human), and so on, ad infinitum. Some of these factors, like the coherence of the pitch, lie within the writer’s control; some, like the resemblance to the high school bully, do not.

Throughout this series, we’re going to talk about how to tell the difference — and to prepare to handle the parts of the process you can control beautifully.

There. That made you feel a whole lot better, didn’t it?

Throughout Pitchingpalooza, I’m going to talk you through how to avoid the pitfalls that scuttle the average pitch. Let’s begin with the single most common reason agents give for rejecting both pitches and queries: they just don’t represent that book category.

Sound familiar? It should. Yesterday, I was waxing poetic on an must-follow piece of advice — if you are looking for an agent (as the overwhelming majority of writers willing to shell out the dosh to attend major conferences are), it makes sense only to invest in attending conferences where agents with a proven track record of selling with your type of book will be available for your pitching pleasure.

Feel free to derive an important corollary from this excellent axiom: from this moment on, resolve that you will pitch or query your book to agents who represent that kind of book. Approaching those who do not is a waste of your valuable time and nerve.

Seems so simple, put that way, doesn’t it? Yet every year, literally millions of aspiring writers either take a scattershot approach, querying fairly randomly (thus all of those “Dear Agent” letters that folks in the industry hate so much) or let the conferences do the selection for them, pitching to whoever is there with a winsome disregard for matching their books with the right agent.

Please don’t do that to yourself; as I pointed out last time, it can only end in tears.

I cannot say this often enough: a savvy writer does not want to be signed by just ANY agent — although, in the throes of agent-seeking, it’s certainly very easy to start believing that any agent at all would be better than none. You want to connect with the specific agent who is going to be able to sell your work quickly and well.

Believe it or not, even the surliest agent who ever strode contemptuously into a literary conference and brushed off a pitcher wants this as well. Good agents don’t like hurting aspiring writers’ feelings, after all; they merely want to sign authors of books they know they can sell — and believe me, they walk into pitch meetings quite aware of what the editors to whom they have already successfully sold books are looking to buy at the moment.

Being intimately familiar with the publishing market is, after all, part of their job. Pretending otherwise just to spare the feelings of the pitcher trembling in front of them at the moment may seem like kindness, but in the long run, it merely raises unwarranted hopes.

Don’t believe me? Go to any writers’ conference that provides pitching opportunities and have a chat with a few writers who are glowing because they talked an agent who doesn’t represent their kind of work into agreeing to read the opening pages. (Which is occasionally possible; many agents feel bad about saying no.) Then talk to those same writers a month or two hence, after those nice agents said no because — wait for it — they simply don’t handle that type of book.

“But I thought he liked me!” these rejected writers will wail. “We hit it off so well! It felt like we made a real connection.”

Perhaps you did, but at the risk of sounding cynical, a pleasant conversation at a conference is just a pleasant conversation at a conference; it’s not a commitment. For the sake of your own happiness, it’s vital to understand before you set foot in a pitch meeting that whether the agent likes a pitcher or not typically has very little to do with acceptance or rejection.

It’s nice if you get along, but remember, this is a business meeting, not speed dating. Despite what astonishingly many conference brochures imply, you’re not going to get signed on the spot, no matter how good your pitch is. Unless you happen to be a celebrity (in which case, why are you reading a blog about constructing a pitch? That’s what minions are for, is it not?) , no agent in her right mind is going to sign a client without reading a manuscript or book proposal.

As a writer, you should be happy about that: you want an agent to fall in love with your voice, don’t you? And weren’t some of you grumbling only yesterday about the unfairness of judging a book on a verbal pitch, rather than on the manuscript itself?

Besides, the agent you want for your work will not take on your project unless she thinks she can sell it in the current market with the connections she already has. So if she does not have a track record of selling books like yours to the editors who habitually acquire in that category, telling you so up front is actually doing you a favor, believe it or not. And although it won’t feel like it in the moment, so is explaining to you any difficulties books like yours are facing in the current literary market.

I’m sensing some disgruntlement amongst those of you who have pitched before (an improvement on panic and annoyance, certainly, but still). “But Anne,” these veterans of the conference wars protest, “that’s just an excuse to say no, isn’t it? There are plenty of books like mine on bookstore shelves right now, but I’ve had agents tell me that there’s no market for a book like mine. What gives?”

I’m very glad you brought this up, disgruntled protestors: many, many aspiring writers aren’t aware of the distinction between the current publishing market (what editors are looking to buy right now) and the current literary market (what’s occupying the shelves at your local bookstore). Books for sale to consumers right now were on the literary market at least a year ago — in most cases, more like two years — and since agents are seldom able to sell new clients’ books within a few days of signing them to an agency contract, any of those books by first-time authors were probably making the rounds of conferences and/or being queried three or more years ago.

Thus, what’s on the shelves right now isn’t necessarily the best indicator of the needs of the current literary market. An agent who is good at his job has to aware of both.

Which is, in case you were wondering, why agents tend to be so quick to reject what doesn’t fall within their sphere of influence. Since they are inundated with queries and pitches, it is in their best interests to weed out the absolutely-nots as swiftly as humanly possible — and although it is bound to be painful at the time, in yours as well.

Don’t believe me? Ask any author who has found herself spending a few years in the purgatory of a representation contract with an agent who didn’t have the contacts to sell her book, but still snapped up the book because it was in an at-the-time-hot book category. (Yes, it happens. Far more often than either the agented or agents themselves like to admit.)

So if an agent who doesn’t represent your kind of work rejects you — and this is equally true if it happens in person or in writing — be open to the possibility that it may not have anything to do with the quality of your writing or the idea you are pitching. It might just be a bad fit with that agent, or the agent’s current connections may not be looking for your kind of book.

Yes, no matter how beautifully it’s written. This part of the process is as much about practicality as about art.

I know it’s hard to accept it philosophically when your baby is rejected out of hand, but please bear the issue of fit constantly in mind while you are pitching and querying. Not only isn’t there anything personal about a bad-fit rejection — it does not even begin to be a fair test of how the book will fly with an agent who does represent that kind of work.

Allow me to repeat that, because it’s awfully important: a manuscript’s being rejected by an agent or editor who doesn’t represent that type of work is most emphatically not a viable test of its marketability amongst those who do.

Thus it follows with an elegant inevitability that if you want to know whether your book is marketable, you should pitch or query it only to those with whom such a test WOULD be a good indicator of how the publishing industry might view it. Or, to put it another way, the best way to avoid this kind of rejection is not to pitch or query your book to any agent that isn’t predisposed to be interested in it.

The same logic applies to pitch meetings with editors, by the way. No editor in the business acquires across every conceivable genre; in fact, most editors’ ability to acquire is sharply limited by their publishing houses to just two or three types of book. So it would be a waste of your pitching energies to, say, try to interest an editor who does exclusively mysteries in your fantasy novel, right?

Check before you pitch. Fortunately, at most conferences, gleaning this information is almost absurdly simple: virtually every conference that hosts pitching sessions will schedule an agents’ forum before the pitch meetings start, so attendees can hear from the agents’ very lips what they are there looking to acquire — and what kinds of pitches they most definitely do not want to hear. If you intend to pitch at the conference, do not, under any circumstances, skip this forum.

Yes, even if you were my rare prize student who went to the trouble of finding out prior to registering for the conference what the attending agents have been selling lately. Even for you, gold-star winner, attending the forum may have tangible benefits: since the publishing market mutates so often and so rapidly, the agent of your dreams may well be looking for a different kind of book today than last week. If so, she’s going to announce it at the forum.

Another solid reason to go hear the agents speak is — brace yourselves; this one is a trifle disillusioning — just because an agent is scheduled to attend a conference doesn’t necessarily mean that he will show up, particularly if the conference is a large one. Most of the time, it’s not the absentee agent’s fault. Crises come up at agencies all the time, so last-minute changes to the roster of pitchable agents attending a conference are common enough that veteran conference attendees regard it as the norm, rather than the exception.

Try not to think of this as rude; regard it as an opportunity. Chances are, someone on that panel is going to represent your kind of book; it may well be someone you had not previously considered. Keep an open mind, and listen well.

Speaking of pitching to editors, here’s another thing that any writer pitching at a North American conference absolutely must know: all of the major NYC publishing houses currently have policies forbidding their editors to acquire work by unagented writers.

Don’t believe me? Check their websites. For the adult book market, the policy is uniform. (Some YA imprints have different policies; again, it’s in your interests to check.)

This means, in essence, that the BEST that could happen if you pitched your book to an editor from one of these houses is that he might help you hook up with an agent. That’s rare, however. A far more frequent benefit: once you have independently landed an agent, it can give your book a slight advantage if your agent can say to an editor, “Oh, by the way, you met this writer at Conference X.”

Sort of changes how you view those much-vaunted conference appointments with bigwig editors, doesn’t it? Pitching to an editor at a major house might help your book in the long run, but it will not enable you to skip the finding-the-agent step, as so many aspiring writers believe. And although it’s somewhat counterintuitive, meeting with an editor at a smaller or regional house might be better for your publishing prospects than one from a major house: the former will generally have more leeway to pick up your book.

I’m bringing this up because in most of the flavors of common being-discovered-at-a-conference fantasy, an editor from Random House or someplace similar hears a pitch, falls over backwards in his chair, and offers a publication contract on the spot, neatly bypassing the often extended agent-seeking period entirely.

We all know the tune by now, right? Conference today, contract tomorrow, The Colbert Report on Thursday.

In reality, even if an editor was blown over (figuratively, at least) by a pitch, he might buttonhole one of the attending agents at a conference cocktail party on your behalf, and they might together plot a future for the book. That does occasionally happen (although it’s not nearly as common as it was ten years ago), but regardless, you’re still going to have to impress that agent before you can sign with the editor. And before you can impress either, the agent is going to have to request and read your manuscript. Although a surprisingly high percentage of conference brochures and websites tell attendees point-blank to bring copies of the manuscripts, just in case an agent or editor wants to read it on the spot, these days, that request is exceedingly rare.

Why? Have you seen what airlines are charging for checked luggage these days? Manuscripts are heavy; it’s almost invariably more convenient for the agent to have you mail or e-mail requested materials than for him to tote them home.

If it sounds as though some conference brochures have not been updated within the last decade, well, that’s not necessarily untrue. Frankly, I think it’s quite unfair to the editors from these houses that more conference promotional materials are not up front about the agented-work-only, considering that it’s hardly a secret. It’s common knowledge, at least amongst those already intimately familiar with the publishing market. Which means, incidentally, that most editors will assume that a writer attending the conference is already aware of it. It’s not as though the individual editor could change the status quo, after all, or as if he’s following the policy merely because he likes to taunt the hopeful.

Before any of you protest that at the last conference you attended, editors from the Big Five asked to see your opening pages regardless of your representation status, let me hasten to add that you are not alone: the we-accept-only-the-agented is most assuredly not the impression that most conference pitchers to editors receive. Unless they are asked point-blank during an editors’ forum how many of them have come to the conference empowered to pick up a new author on the spot — a question well worth asking at an editors’ forum, hint, hint — most editors who attend conferences will speak glowingly about their authors, glossing over the fact that they met these authors not in settings like this, but through well-connected agents.

See earlier comment about common knowledge. They honestly do think you know. It doesn’t mean that they can’t give you some valuable advice, or that pitching to them isn’t good practice. But trust me, no editor is going to jeopardize his job at Broadway by handing a contract to a writer his boss would throw a fit if he signed.

So why, you may be wondering, do editors from the majors attend literary conferences — and, once there, why do they request submissions?

This is an important question, because editors from the major houses request manuscripts from pitchers all the time, but not because they are looking to sign the author instantly on the strength of the book. Sometimes, conference organizers will insist that attending editors must agree to read at least a few pitched books; that doesn’t mean that those editors can waive their houses’ policies. In other cases — and editors talk about this one more than you might expect — they just want to get in on the ground floor if the book is going to be the next major bestseller.

No editor wants to go down in publishing history as the guy who passed on the next DA VINCI CODE or TWILIGHT, after all. It’s a gamble, pure and simple.

So even though they would almost certainly not in fact pick up the next DA VINCI CODE if its author did pitch to them at a conference, having a personal connection with the author is a great means of queue-jumping. If one of them is nice enough to you, you might tell your agent (once you hook up with one) that you want your potential bestseller sent to that editor first. Heck, if she’s nice enough to you, you might be gullible enough to insist that she gets an exclusive peek at it, so there cannot possibly be competitive bidding over the book.

Don’t laugh: it’s not a bad gamble, from their perspective. Aspiring writers have been known to get some strange ideas about loyalty owed to industry types who met them for a grand total of fifteen minutes once.

“But he liked me!” writers will tell their incredulous new agents. “We hit it off so well! It felt like we made a real connection.”

But deep in their steamy little hearts, those editors from major houses who ask you to send chapters will be hoping that you will land an agent before they get around to reading the manuscript they requested you send. If you are looking to pitch to an editor who might conceivably pick up your book right away, you are generally better off pitching to an editor from a smaller or regional house.

The overall moral: learning what individual agents and editors are looking for AND what their bosses will allow them to pick up (aside from the next DA VINCI CODE, of course) will help you target both your conference pitches and your queries more effectively. Everyone — not only you, but the agents and editors to whom you pitch — will be happier if you do.

Honest. Nobody concerned wants to break your heart gratuitously; it’s would be a waste of their scant bestseller-seeking time.

Getting a trifle depressed? Keep repeating to yourself: they don’t reject to be mean; they don’t reject to be mean; they don’t reject to be mean. They’re doing it to fight their way to the book they can support wholeheartedly.

Again, as a writer, you really should be glad of that. Trust me: after you do hook up with the right agent for your book, you’re going to be happy that they’re so selective.

Yes, really. Keep up the good work!

Just what am I getting myself into? Part II: the money matters

After our long, in-depth foray into the delights of standard format for manuscripts, and as a segue into what I hope will be an extended romp through craft, with particular emphasis upon problems that tend to generate knee-jerk rejection responses, I’m devoting a few days this week to explaining briefly how a manuscript moves from the writer’s fingertips to publication. (My, that was lengthy sentence, was it not? The late Henry James would have been so proud.) There are several ways that this can happen, of course, and but for now, I’m concentrating upon what most people mean by a book’s getting published: being brought to press and promoted by a large publisher. In the US, that publisher’s headquarters will probably be located in New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco.

Everyone clear on the parameters — and that what I am about to say might not be applicable to a big publishing house in Paris, Johannesburg, or Vladivostok, or to a small publisher domestically? Good. Let’s recap a bit from last time. While we’re at it, let’s get conversant with some of the terms of the trade.

How a manuscript typically comes to publication at a major U.S. publishing house these days (as opposed to way back when)
As we discussed, fiction is typically sold as a completed manuscript; nonfiction is usually sold as a book proposal, a packet of marketing materials that includes a sample chapter and a competitive market analysis, showing how the proposed book will offer the target readership something different and better than similar books already on the market. While the proposal will also include a summary of each of the chapters in the book-to-be-written (in a section known as the annotated table of contents; for tips on how to construct this and the other constituent parts of a book proposal, please see the HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL category on the archive list at right), the editor will often ask the writer to add or subtract chapters or change the book’s running order.

Which underscores a point I made last time: a nonfiction book proposal is essentially a job application wherein the writer is trying to convince the publisher to pay him to write the book being proposed; a novel is a product that the author is trying to sell.

I can already feel some of your eyes glazing over from jargon fatigue, can’t I? Hang in there; I assure you that there are plot twists to come.

A hundred years ago, writers who wished to get their books published went about it in a fairly straightforward manner, by approaching editors at major publishing houses directly. If the editor the author approached liked the book, he would take it to what was (and still is) known as an editorial committee, a group of editors and higher-ups who collectively decided what books the house would bring out in the months and years to come. If the editorial committee decided to go ahead with the project, the publisher would typically pay the author an advance against projected royalties, edit the manuscript, and have it typeset (by hand, no less).

Today, a writer who intends to approach a large U.S. publisher must do so through an agent. The agent’s job is to ferret out which editors might be interested in her clients’ books and pitch to them. Unless an editor happens to be exceptionally well-established at his or her house, however, s/he is not the only one who needs to approve a book’s acquisition: typically, the book will still go before an editorial committee.

At that point, it’s the acquiring editor’s turn to be the advocate for the book s/he wants to publish — and that’s not always an easy task, because other editors will be fighting for their pet projects as well. Since a publishing house can only afford to bring out a very small number of books in any given marketing season, the battle for whose project will see print can become quite intense, and not necessarily only amongst the editors around the table. At a large publishing house, the marketing and legal departments might weigh in as well.

If a manuscript makes it through the hurly-burly of the editorial committee, the editor will offer the writer a publication contract. (Actually, s/he will offer it to the writer’s agent, who will in turn discuss it with the author, but it amounts to the same thing.) Contractual terms vary widely, but at base, they will stipulate that in return for pocketing the lion’s share of the profits, the publisher would bear all of the production and promotional costs, as well as responsibility for getting the book onto bookstore shelves.

In return, the author will agree to provide the manuscript for by a particular date (usually quite soon for a novel — which, please recall, is already completely written before the agent takes it to the editor) or as much as a year and a half later for a book proposal. If the editor wants changes, s/he will issue an editorial memo requesting them.

Some of you just had a strong visceral reaction to the idea of being asked to alter your manuscript, didn’t you? If your heart rate went up by more than a third at the very suggestion, you might want to sit down, put your feet up, and sip a soothing beverage whilst perusing the next section. (Camomile tea might be a good choice.)

Why? Because when an author signs a book contract, she’s agreeing to more than allowing the publisher to print the book. Such as…

Control over the text itself
While the author may negotiate over contested points, the editor will have final say over what will go into the finished book. The contract will say so. And no, in response to what you’re probably thinking: you’re almost certainly not going to be able to win an argument over whether something your editor wants changed will harm the artistic merit of the book.

Sorry to be the one to break the bad news, but it’s better that you know the score going into the situation. Pretty much every first-time author faced with editorial demands has attempted to declare something along the lines of, “Hey, buddy, I’m the author of this work, and what you see on the page represents my artistic vision. Therefore, I refuse to revise in accordance with your misguided boneheaded downright evil suggestion. Oh, well, that’s that.” Or at least thought it very loudly indeed.

That’s an argument that might conceivably work for a well-established, hugely marketable author, but as virtually all of those aforementioned first-time authors could tell you, no one, but no one, at a publishing house is going to find the “My art — my way!” argument particularly compelling. Or even original.

Why? Well, remember my earlier quip about how publishing houses can only bring out a few titles in any book category per year, far, far more than their editors would like to bring to press? It’s never wise to issue a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum to people so well equipped with alternatives that they can easily afford to leave it. Especially if the issue in question is something as small as cutting your favorite paragraph.

I’m telling you all this not to depress you — although it’s not all that difficult to imagine those last couple of paragraph having that effect — but so that you will not waste your energy and reputation on battling with your editor over every single requested change. Editorial control is built into the publishing process, after all; if you bring a book to successful publication, I can virtually guarantee that you will have to compromise on something. Learning to pick your battles, figuring out when give in gracefully and when to go to the mat, will serve both your interests and your book’s best in the long run.

May I hear an amen? No? How about a few begrudging grunts of acknowledgment? Well, suit yourself, but if you found that last argument trying, you might want to find something to bite down upon before you read on.

Why, you ask with trembling voice? Well, final say over the actual text and the ability to determine the timing of publication are not generally the only authorial rights one signs over via a publishing contract.

A few matters that most first-time authors are stunned to learn that they cannot dictate for their own books: the typeface, the type of binding, the use of italics or special fonts, the number of illustrations, if any, when it will come out, and what the cover will look like. Also almost always beyond a first-time author’s ability to do anything about: the book’s title (that’s generally the marketing department’s call, believe it or not) and whether there is an acknowledgments page (the reason that they have become rarer in recent years is not that authors as a group have magically become less grateful, but that, like the dedication and epigraphs — those nifty quotes from other authors that often appear in published works — they take up extra page space, and thus render publishing a book more expensive).

Hey, I’m just the messenger here. As a memoirist whose title was summarily changed by her publisher from something she expected to be changed (Is That You, Pumpkin?) to one that was bizarrely ungrammatical (A Family Darkly, a coy reference to A Scanner Darkly, which is in itself a reference to 1 Corinthians 13), believe me, my sympathies are squarely on the writers’ side on this one. (And no, Virginia, no employee of my former publishing house was ever able to explain to me with any degree of precision what they thought their preferred title meant.)

The moral, should you care to know it: while landing a publication contract for a first book is certainly a coup, you’ll have a much, much happier life as a professional writer if you don’t expect it all to be one big literary luncheon where the glitterati congratulate you warmly on the beauty of your prose and the insight of your book’s worldview. It’s going to be hard work — for a crash course in just how hard many first-time authors find it, take a gander at the GETTING GOOD AT INCORPORATING FEEDBACK category on the archive list at right — and if you’re going to be successful at it, you’re going to need to come to terms with what you can and cannot control.

Speaking of which…

The hows and whens of book publishing
Another matter that the publication contract will specify is the format in which the publisher will release the book — and no, it won’t be up to you whether your book will be released in hardcover or not. Historically, the author’s percentage has been higher for a hardcover book than for a paperback; until fairly recently, newspapers and magazines habitually reviewed only hardcovers for most novel categories, since that was the standard for high-quality fiction releases.

In the last 15-20 years, however, fiction (and quite a bit of nonfiction, too) has increasingly been released in trade paper, those high-quality softcovers that so conveniently may be rolled and stuffed into a pocket or backpack, so the earlier review restriction has softened. That’s definitely good news for first-time novelists, as well as those of us who like to lug around several different books when we travel.

Hey, a Kindle’s an electronic device — it has to be turned off for takeoff and landing.

Once an editor has acquired a manuscript, it is assigned a place in the publisher’s print queue. In other words, they will tell the author when the book will actually be printed. Since much must happen between the time the editor receives a finished manuscript and when it goes to press, the contracted date by which the author must provide the book is typically months prior to the print date. This often comes as a great big surprise to a first-time author.

If you wish to see your books published, though, you will have to come to terms with the fact that an author’s life is a hurry up/wait/hurry up/wait existence. The main manifestation of this: how long it takes for a major publisher to bring out a book. Although they sometimes will do a rush job to meet the demands of a current fad or news story, the typical minimum time between an author’s signing a book contract and the volume’s appearance in bookstores is at least a year. More often two.

And that’s for fiction — which, as you will no doubt recall, is already written before the publisher has any contact with the book at all. For nonfiction, the time lapse is often substantially longer, in order to permit the author to write the book in question.

So although one does indeed see books on current news stories hitting the shelves within a matter of weeks (the OJ Simpson trial, anyone?), that is most emphatically not the norm. A savvy writer takes this into account when constructing a narrative, avoiding references that might seem absolutely up-to-the-minute when he first types them, but will be as stale as last year’s fashions a year or two hence, when the book is finally available for readers to buy.

I could go on and on about timing and control issues, but I’m seeing some raised hands out there. “Um, Anne?” the excellent folks attached to those hands ask timidly. “I don’t mean to seem shallow about my writing, but I notice that you haven’t said much about how and when an author actually gets paid for her work. Since I will have invested years of unpaid effort in writing a novel or perhaps months in constructing a marketable book proposal, is it unreasonable for me to wonder when I might start to see some tangible return on that investment?”

Of course it isn’t. Let’s take a closer look at how and when a writer might conceivably start cashing in for those manuscripts and/or book proposals she’s written on spec.

How authors get paid for their books
An author who publishes through a large publisher is paid a pre-agreed proportion of the book’s sale price, known as a royalty. An advance against royalties (known colloquially just as an advance) is an up-front payment of a proportion of what the publisher expects the author’s percentage of the jacket price for the initial print run (i.e., the total number of books in the first edition).

Thus, the more spectacularly the publisher expects the book to sell, the larger the advance. And because the advance is by definition an estimate of a number that no human being could predict with absolute accuracy, if the publisher’s estimate was too high, and thus the advance too large for the royalties to exceed, the author is seldom expected to pay back the advance if the book doesn’t sell well. However, once the book is released, the author does not receive further royalty payments until after her agreed-upon share of the books sold exceeds the amount of the advance.

Since approximately 2/3rds of you just gasped audibly, let me repeat that last bit: the advance is not in addition to royalties, but a prepaid portion of them. An advance is not a signing bonus, as most people think, but a down payment toward what a publisher believes it will eventually owe the author.

While your jaw is already dropped, let me hasten to add that royalties over and above the advance amount are usually not paid on an as-the-books-sell basis, which could entail the publisher’s cutting a check every other day, but at regularly-scheduled intervals. Once every six months is fairly standard.

Don’t feel bad if you were previously unaware of how writers get paid; half the published authors I know were completely in the dark about that last point until their first books had been out for five months or so.

Yet another moral: it behooves you to read your publication contract carefully. If you don’t understand what it says, ask your agent to explain it to you; it’s her job.

Those hands just shot up again, didn’t they? “I’m glad you brought that up, Anne. You’ve made it clear why I would need an agent to help me though this process, which sounds like a drawn-out and somewhat unpredictable one. So how do I go about finding the paragon who will protect me and my work?”

I’m glad you asked, hand-raisers. Many aspiring writers believe, mistakenly, that all that’s necessary for a book to get published is to write it. However, as any author whose first book came out within the last decade could tell you, bringing one’s writing to the publishing industry’s attention can be almost as much work as the composition process — and has been known to take just as long or longer.

Again, sorry to be the one to break it to you, but it’s vital to a good writer’s happiness to understand that extended, frustrating, and difficult roads to publication are the norm for first books these days, not the exception.

Clinging to the common writerly misconception that if writing is any good, it will always be picked up by the first or second agent who sees it, or that a manuscript that doesn’t find a publisher within the first few submissions must not be well-written, is a sure road to discouragement, if not outright depression. Certainly, it makes a writer more likely to give up after just a few rejections.

Since the competition in the book market is fierce by the standards of any industry, realistic expectations are immensely helpful in equipping even the most gifted writer for the long haul. It can also be hugely beneficial in tracking down and working well with the helpful friend who will be toting your manuscript to publishers for you, your agent.

So how does a writer go about acquiring this valuable assistant? Unless one happens to be intimate friends with a great many well-established authors, one has two options: verbally and in writing.

But first, let’s talk about what an aspiring writer should NEVER do
Querying and pitching are an aspiring writer’s only options for calling a US-based agent’s attention to his or her work. Picking up the phone and calling, stopping them on the street, or other informal means of approach are considered quite rude.

Translation: they’re not going to work. Don’t even try.

The same holds true for mailing or e-mailing a manuscript to an agent without asking first if s/he would like to see it, by the way. This is universally an instant-rejection offense. Unlike in the old days, simply sending to an agent who has never heard of you will only result in your work being rejected unread: uniformly, agencies reject pages they did not actually ask to see (known as unsolicited submissions).

Is everyone clear on how to avoid seeming rude? Good. Let’s move on to the accepted courteous means of introducing yourself and your book.

Approaching an agent in writing: the query letter
The classic means of introducing one’s book to an agent is by sending a formal letter, known in the trade as a query. Contrary to popular belief, the query’s goal is not to convince an agent to represent the book in question — no agent is going to offer to represent a book or proposal before she’s read it — but to prompt the agent to ask the writer to send either the opening pages of the manuscript or the whole thing. After that, your good writing can speak for itself, right?

Think of the query as your book’s personal ad, intended to pique an agent’s interest, not as the first date.

Always limited to a single page in length, the query letter briefly presents the agent with the bare-bones information s/he will need in order to determine whether s/he wants to read any or all of the manuscript the writer is offering. This will be familiar to those of you who worked through my Querypalooza series last fall, but for the benefit of all of you New Year’s resolvers new to the game, here’s a list of the information a good query should include:

(1) Whether the book is fiction or nonfiction. You’d be surprised at how often queriers forget to mention which.

(2) The book category. Basically, the part of the bookstore where the publishing book will occupy shelf space. Since no agent represents every kind of book, this information is essential: if an agent doesn’t have connections with editors who publish the type of book you’re querying, he’s not going to waste either your time or his by asking to see it. (For guidance on how to determine your book’s category, please see the aptly-named HOW TO FIGURE OUT YOUR BOOK’S CATEGORY listing on the archive list on the lower-right side of this page.)

It’s also a good idea, but not strictly required, to point out who might be interested in reading your book and why; an agent is going to want to know that at some point, anyway. Of course, I’m not talking about boasting predictions like, “Oh, Random House would love this!” or “This is a natural for Oprah!” (you wouldn’t believe how often agents hear that last one) or sweeping generalizations like, “Every woman in America needs to read this book!” Instead, try describing it the way a marketing professional might: “This book will appeal to girls aged 13-16, because it deals with issues they face in their everyday lives. (For tips on figuring out who your book’s audience might be with this much specificity, please see the IDENTIFYING YOUR TARGET MARKET category at right.)

(3) A one- or two-paragraph description of the book’s argument or plot. No need to summarize the entire plot here, merely the premise, but do make sure that the writing is vivid. For a novel or memoir, this paragraph should introduce the book’s protagonist, the main conflict or obstacles she faces, and what’s at stake if she does or does not overcome them. For a nonfiction book, this paragraph should present the central question the book addresses and suggest, briefly, how the book will address it.

(4) The writer’s previous publishing credentials or awards, if any, and/or expertise that renders her an expert on the book’s topic. Although not necessarily indicative of the quality of a book’s writing, to an agent, these are some of your book’s selling points. For tips on figuring out what to include here, please see the YOUR BOOK’S SELLING POINTS category on the list at right.

(5) Some indication of why the writer thinks the agent to whom the letter is addressed would be a good representative for the book. As I mentioned above, agents don’t represent books in general: they represent specific varieties. Since they so often receive queries from aspiring writers who are apparently sending exactly the same letter indiscriminately to every agent in the country, stating up front why you chose to pick THIS agent is an excellent idea. No need to indulge in gratuitous flattery: a simple since you so ably represented Book X or since you represent literary fiction (or whatever your book category is) will do.

Should any of you have been considering querying every agent in the country, be warned: it’s a sure route to rejection, especially if a writer makes the mistake of addressing the letter not to a specific person, but Dear Agent. Trust me on this one.

(6) The writer’s contact information. Another one that you might be astonished to learn is often omitted. Yet if the agent can’t get hold of you, she cannot possibly ask to you to send her your manuscript, can she?

(7) A stamped, self-addressed envelope (SASE) for the agent’s reply. This isn’t part of the letter, strictly speaking, but it absolutely must be included in the envelope in which you send your query. No exceptions, not even if you tell the agent in the query that you would prefer to be contacted via e-mail.

I’m serious about this: don’t forget to include it. Queries that arrive without SASEs are almost universally rejected unread. (For tips on the hows and whys of producing perfect SASEs, please see the SASE GUIDELINES category on the list at right.)

Is there more to constructing a successful query letter than this? Naturally — since I’ve written extensively about querying (posts you will find under the perplexingly-named HOW TO WRITE A QUERY LETTER category on the archive list, if you’re interested) and how it should look (QUERY LETTERS ILLUSTRATED), the list above is not intended to be an exhaustive guide to how to write one.

Speaking of realistic expectations, do not be disappointed if you do not receive an instantaneous response to your query. Because a well-established agent may receive 800 to 1500 queries per week (yes, you read that correctly), it’s not uncommon for a regularly mailed query not to hear back for a month or six weeks. Some agencies do not respond at all if the answer is no. So it’s just poor strategy to query agents one at a time. (For a fuller explanation, please see the QUERYING MULTIPLE AGENTS AT ONCE category at right.)

Approaching an agent in writing, part II: the electronic or website-based query
Because of the aforementioned slow turn-around times for queries sent via regular mail, increasing numbers of aspiring writers are choosing to send their query letters via e-mail. There are pros and cons to this — which I shall go over at length in a day or two, when I fulfill a reader request for a Formatpalooza take on the subject.

Some agencies ask queriers fill out an electronic form that includes some or all of the information that’s in a traditional query letter. While some aspiring writers have landed agents in this manner, I tend to discourage this route, since typically, the word count allowed is sharply limited. (Some agency sites permit as few as 50 words for plot summaries, for instance.) Also, most writers just copy and paste material from their query letters into the boxes of these forms, substantially increasing the likelihood of cut-off words, missed punctuation, and formatting errors.

If you just cringed, in recognition of how people who read manuscripts for a living tend to react to these types of tiny errors: congratulations. Your chances of querying successfully are substantially higher than someone who doesn’t know to conduct intense proofreading upon ANYTHING that’s s/he sends an agent.

Remember, literally every sentence you send a potential agent is a sample of how good your writing is. Regardless of whether you choose to query electronically or via regular mail, it’s in your best interests to make sure that every syllable is impeccably presented.

Which is why, in case you were wondering, written queries were the only means of approaching agents until just a few years ago, and still the means that most of them prefer. (Short of a personal introduction, of course. Writers whose college roommates or best friends from elementary school grew up to be agents enjoy an undeniable advantage in obtaining representation that the rest of us do not enjoy.) If a potential client has trouble expressing himself in writing, is ignorant of the basic rules of grammar, or is just plain inattentive to those itsy-bitsy details I mentioned above, a written query will tend to show it.

To be fair, aspiring writers often prefer to query in writing, because that, after all, is presumably their strength. Besides, there are a lot of very talented but shy writers out there who would infinitely prefer to present their work from a distance, rather than in person. However, direct interaction with an agent is sometimes a plus.

Approaching an agent verbally: the pitch
A face-to-face presentation of a book concept to an agent is called a pitch, and it’s actually not indigenous to publishing: it’s borrowed from the movie industry. Screenwriters pitch their work verbally all the time. The reason that the publishing industry has been rather reluctant to follow suit is a corollary of the proof-is-in-the-pudding reason I mentioned above: not everyone who can talk about a book well can write one successfully, just as not every writer capable of producing magnificent prose is equally adept at describing it in conversation.

However, since writers’ conferences often import agents to speak, many set up formal pitching sessions for attendees. Sometimes they charge extra for the privilege; sometimes it’s included in the conference fee. It’s also sometimes possible to buttonhole an agent after a seminar or in a hallway, but many conference organizers frown upon that. (Contrary to conference-circuit rumor, it’s typically the conference bigwigs who object to hallway pitching, not the attending agents. Virtually nobody objects to being approached politely immediately after a conference panel — and if they do, they simply say no and walk away. But no matter how much you want a particular agent to represent you, it’s NEVER considered acceptable to attempt to pitch in a conference or literary event’s bathroom. Don’t let me catch you doing it.)

Like the query letter, the purpose of the pitch is not to convince the agent to sign a writer to a long-term representation contract on the spot, but to get the agent to ask the writer to mail him or her chapters of the book. (To engage in another parenthetical just-between-us chat: contrary to what conference brochures often imply, agents virtually never ask a pitcher to produce anything longer than a five-page writing sample on the spot. Since manuscripts are heavy, they almost universally prefer to have writers either mail or e-mail requested pages. I don’t know why conference organizers so often tell potential attendees otherwise.)

In order to achieve that, you’re going to need to describe your book compellingly and in terms that will make sense to the business side of the industry. In essence, then, a pitch is a verbal query letter.

Thus, it should contain the same information: whether it is fiction or nonfiction, the book category, the target audience, any writing credentials or experience you might have that might provide selling points for the book, and a BRIEF plot summary. Most conference organizers are adamant about the brief part: their guidelines will commonly specify that the summary portion should take no more than 2 minutes.

Did I just hear all of you novelists out there gulp? You honestly do not have a lot of time here: scheduled pitch sessions may range in length anywhere from 2-15 minutes, but most are 5-10.

Usually, they are one-on-one meetings in a cramped space where many other writers are noisily engaged in pitching to many other agents, not exactly an environment conducive to intimate chat. At some conferences, though, a number of writers will sit around a table with an agent, pitching one after the other.

Yes, that’s right: as if this situation weren’t already stressful enough, you might have to be doing this in front of an audience.

While the opportunity to spend telling a real, live agent about your book I’m going to be honest with you: the vast majority of aspiring writers find pitching absolutely terrifying, at least the first time they do it. Like writing a good query letter, constructing and delivering a strong pitch is not something any talented writer is magically born knowing how to do: it’s a learned skill. For some help in learning how to do it, please see the HOW TO PREPARE A PITCH category on the list at right.

In case I’m being too subtle here: if you are looking for in-depth analysis on any of these subjects or step-by-step how-tos, try perusing the category list at right.

Since I usually tackle these issues on a much more detail-oriented basis — a hazard of my calling, I’m afraid — I’m finding it quite interesting to paint the picture in these broad strokes. Next time, I shall talk a bit about what happens after a query or submission arrives at an agency — and perhaps use that as a segue into that aforementioned additional Formatpalooza post, by special reader request.

The joint is going to be jumping here at Author! Author! Keep up the good work!